Reuters International

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea March 21, 2014. Eoin Blackwell/AAP/via Reuters

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By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The fate of nearly 900 men held in an Australian detention centre in Papua New Guinea is unlikely to be determined for several months, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Monday.

That timetable could put the politically sensitive decision beyond a federal election on July 2, although Australia's tough immigration policy is expected to be a feature of one of the longest poll campaigns in the country's history.

The PNG government said two weeks ago it planned to close the detention centre on Manus Island after the Pacific island nation's Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful, a decision that threatens to undermine Australia's closed door asylum policy. Each country has argued that the other is responsible for the fate of the men.

While the numbers of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia are small in comparison with the floods in Europe, the issue has been a major feature of recent political campaigns with the ruling conservative government coming to power in 2013 on a promise to "stop the boats".

The Manus Island detainees are a headache Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can ill afford as opinion polls show his Liberal-led Coalition government running neck-and-neck with the centre-left Labor opposition.

Dutton described talks between the two nations in PNG last week as "constructive", but when pressed on a timetable by reporters he said a resolution would likely take "a couple of months".

"We will have what I think will be detailed and long-run discussions with Papua New Guinea," he told reporters, saying that Australia had made it clear the detained men, from countries including Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, would not be settled in Australia.

Legal action, however, may speed up the timetable, with lawyers for the detainees already going through the courts to seek their immediate release and transfer to Australia.

Under Australia's hard-line immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat after paying people smugglers are sent for processing to a camp in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or to Nauru. In an attempt to dissuade others from making the risky journey by boat, they are never eligible for resettlement in Australia even if deemed to be genuine asylum seekers.

Dutton also said Australian officials had intercepted and returned a boat to Sri Lanka carrying 12 people last week, bringing the total of returned boats this year to three.

(Editing by Jane Wardell and Richard Pullin)

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